It's hard for some people to imagine, but Sony was the first major brand to offer an e-book reader back in 2006--beating the original Amazon Kindle to market by at least 14 months. Since then, however, the company's e-book strategy has been one step forward and two steps back as it plays catch-up with upstart competitors Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Consider the 2010 Sony Readers: the models pioneered e-ink touch screens months before the Nook and Kobo, but they inexplicably omitted Wi-Fi from most models--instead requiring readers to tether to a PC and download new e-books. Those Sonys were also priced far above competing Kindle and Nook models at the time.
A year later, Sony is updating its Reader line, and this time the company seems to be more in tune with current e-reader features and pricing.
The new Sony Reader Wi-Fi PRS-T1 hits stores this October for $149. The responsive touch screen is intact, and the inclusion of Wi-Fi and that lower price tag finally gets Sony into the same pricing and features realm as the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo Touch. Oh, and it's nice to see Sony simplifying its e-reader product line with one 6-inch model that comes in three colors--black, red, and white.
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We got a chance to take an early look at the Reader Wi-Fi several weeks ago behind closed doors. The unit we saw was a nonworking prototype, but since the new Reader is essentially a redesigned version of last year's PRS-650, the most important takeaways from the preview were the new form factor and lighter weight (partially due to an all-plastic, rather than metal, casing).
Sony was actually the first to license and include Neonode's infrared touch-screen technology in last year's PRS-350, PRS-650, and PRS-950 Readers. Since then, both Barnes & Noble and Kobo have incorporated the technology into their latest touch-screen e-readers. Because that technology uses infrared sensors to register touch gestures on screen, it's allowed e-reader manufacturers to make touch-screen interfaces without adding an extra screen layer that reduces contrast.
The Reader Wi-Fi brings along that same touch-screen technology and looks and feels more similar to the Kobo Touch than the new Nook, which has rounded corners and is a little wider because it has "hard" page turn buttons on the sides of the screen (as you can see the Reader Wi-Fi's hard buttons are along the bottom of the screen).
With Wi-Fi now aboard and the inclusion of a microSD card slot for expanding beyond the built-in 2GB of memory, the Reader Wi-Fi is on par with its competitors from a specs perspective. However, it remains a tad more expensive, with the Nook currently costing $139.99 and Kobo Touch retailing for $129.99. (Amazon's offering starts at $114 for the ad-supported Kindle With Special Offers, but the Kindle is looking long in the tooth as the only major model without a touch screen.) The Reader Wi-Fi's one bonus feature is the inclusion of audio support, which means you can listen to music while you read--a notable upgrade from the no-audio Nook and Kobo models.
Here are the key specs of the Reader Wi-Fi:
- Price: $149
- 6-inch Clear Enhanced touch screen (16-level grayscale E Ink Pearl V220 screen)
- Neonode infrared touch-screen technology (same as Nook Touch)
- 1GHz Intel processor
- Weighs 5.93 ounces
- 6.8 x 4.3 x 0.35 inches (HWD)
- MicroSD expansion slot for adding additional memory
- Built-in Wi-Fi (no 3G)
- 2 GB built-in memory (stores around 1,200 e-books)
- Text and handwritten note-taking capabilities
- Up to 5 weeks of reading on a single battery charge
- 12 embedded multilingual dictionaries (2 English language and 10 translation dictionaries)
- Six adjustable font sizes to customize
- USB 2.0 data and power connection (micro USB)
- Supports PDF, Microsoft Word, and other text file formats, as well as EPUB/ACS4 and connection with Adobe Digital Editions
- Supports public library lending in U.S. and Canada
- Reads JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP image files
- Reader Library software for PC and Mac
- Plays back MP3 and AAC audio files (headphone jack on board)
- Available in black, red, and white
- Limited edition PRS-T1HBC (also $149) includes a voucher to download free "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" e-book from Pottermore Web site
- Shipping in October
The touch screen on previous Sony Readers worked very well, and Sony is letting users choose between using their fingers or the included stylus to take notes and handle highlighting. Protective cases with or without reading lights will also be available.
The Reader Wi-Fi is also designed with easy library lending access in mind, with a dedicated icon offering access to free library book downloads--if you have a valid local library card, of course.
While the Reader Wi-Fi would ideally be priced at $139 to match the Nook Touch's price tag, as we said, at least Sony's in the ballpark this go round (last year's Wi-Fi-less PRS-650 carried a list price of $229, which was absurd). It's also worth noting that as Sony's lost market share to Barnes and Noble in the U.S. (Amazon's Kindle still retains a big lead in the U.S.), Sony still has a strong presence overseas and it will be priced significantly higher in Europe (a recent leak on a Dutch Web site put the Reader Wi-Fi's price at 168 Euros, which comes out to well above $200).
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Another challenge for Sony is its app strategy. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo all do an excellent job of providing access to e-book purchases from their respective stores through alternate hardware--iPhones, iPads, Android phones, Android tablets, BlackBerry phones, Windows PCs, and Macs. By contrast, Sony offers an Android app, as well as Windows and Mac software at the current time. For reasons unknown, the iOS app remains a no-show. It's a potential shortcoming that may sway comparative shoppers to those competitors.
At the very least, this should make for an interesting holiday season for e-readers. With Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony all offering compelling touch-screen e-readers--and Amazon potentially releasing a new e-reader (or e-readers, or tablets) this fall--the e-reader arena is becoming awfully competitive. We'll do our best to help you sort through the choices and we'll have a review of the Sony Reader Wi-Fi PRS-T1 as soon as we get our hands on a review sample.
Correction 8:25 a.m. PT: This story initially misreported that there was no Sony Reader App for Android. The app is available, and we've corrected the story above to indicate that.